BYU Bookstore is now selling the wacky McNaughton painting that inspired such great poetry here. It’s got a big display on the bottom floor where other art is displayed and sold. This is especially ironic given that the Daily Universe (BYUs paper) just did an article on how international BYU has become. I was trying to imagine how someone from another country would react to a painting of Christ returning with a copy of the US Constitution. Probably like I would to a picture of Christ returning with a copy of, say, France’s Constitution of the Fifth Republic or Uganda’s constitution. It strikes me that giving Christ the US Constitution as aegis is inappropriate. Wildly so.
Let’s explore this a bit.
In Augustine’s, The City of God, he places the narrative of human history in a story of tension between two metaphorical cities he calls, Jerusalem (The City of God, Zion) and Babylon. The narrative is apt and I want to explore it a bit in light of what I see as a growing obsession with divisive politics. I should note that, unlike many in the bloggernacle, I know nothing about politics. That is what allows me to speak with such authority about it. If fact, in previous times one would notice a distinctive glazing over of my eyes if politics were being discussed. The only reason I’ve taken an interest, is a sudden vilification I’ve experienced of late in the political arena. As apolitical as I am, I suddenly find myself embroiled in what can only be described as hostility. There is a bizarre type of American vitriolic nationalistic fervor that seems expressed in McNaughton’s painting.
But back to Augustine. He is writing during the collapse of the Roman Empire in 410 AD. Rome has been an unassailable power for around a thousand years (as Republic then Empire), but it has just been sacked by the Visagoths. This has unmoored everyone and the world has turned topsy-turvy. Some in the Empire think that maybe its fall is being precipitated by the turn to Christianity. The old pagan structures have been replaced and the proper pagan rites are going unobserved. There is a movement to return Rome to its glory by a restoration to its Pagan traditions. Augustine, schooled in the finest classical education of the period, wants to argue (using the stylings of Cicero, and the other Roman patricians and philosophical literati) that Rome’s fall was an inventible result of its preoccupations, and Christianity is the only thing that will save it.
The city he terms Babylon starts with Cain. ‘Cain,’ means ‘full ownership’ in the original he says (I have no idea if this is true, Kevin?), and into human history from the beginning orchestrates an interest in city building and political structure maintenance. These are the interests of the metaphorical city of Babylon. Its preoccupation is ‘the lust to dominate.’ He sees Rome as the greatest incarnation of this idea. This is the principle that drives the city of Babylon.
The members of the city of God (also called Zion), in contrast, are interested in God’s work. He calls these citizens, Peregrinatoio, ‘resident aliens.’ They live in the world, but are not citizens thereof. They are ‘Pilgrims.’ ‘Wanders.’ Their concerns are God’s work. The work of loving their fellow creatures. The work of forming communion with God. Their work is one of concern for others. Redemption.
Neither city has a geographical location, of course, and exist only in the hearts of people. He is careful not to suggest these are dualisms into which people are categorized. He recognizes nuance and complexity. These are poles to which people are drawn to some extent or another.
But he argues our true home is the City of God. The concerns of Babylon cannot be the Christian’s ultimate concern (to borrow from Theologian Paul Tillich). To the extent that the world has become the goal, be believes we are missing our true home.
He acknowledges that political structures are important. He praises the safety he has enjoyed as a citizen of Rome, the educational opportunities it provided, the political climate that allowed crops to be grown and transported, but he also knows that he is not ultimately a citizen of Babylon, but of Zion—and its concerns must be kept in his heart at all times. He compares those who let their preoccupation with the concerns of Babylon to a man who gives his betrothed a ring, but then turns all his attention to the ring: lavishing attention on it, expending his energies on its care, and all the while ignoring his beloved.
Certainly political structures are important. Some are better than others. But when we use the language of the City of God (evil and righteous) to apply to entities such as political structures, which are better referenced as good or better or bad, we have focused on the ring rather than our beloved. To the extent that we worship the City Babylon and its structures and fill our rhetoric with hate and divisiveness and argue that Babylon and the City of God are the same, we have lost sight of important truths and by my lights have fully embraced Babylon.
In all this I find resonance with Joseph Smith’s call to be a Zion people. Those who argue that because of the accident of our birthplace, we have a right to ignore our primary responsibility—love–have turned their faces toward Babylon. There will be no borders in Zion. There will be no America, no Rome, no –ites of any kind. That is why I find McNaughton’s painting so offensive. To imagine that Christ will hold a document, as wonderful as it is, from the city of Babylon, is a mockery of Zion our true home, and conflates the two cities. Christ is the redeemer of the world. The world people!
I drew on Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. 2000. University of California Press, and Augustine’s City of God, for this post.